How Workplace Bullies Pick Their Targets (2023)

Every day, employees are abused and bullied at work. The issue of workplace bullying affects nearly one-third of all employees at some point during their careers, or 48.6 million Americans every year, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute.

A 2015 research review of studies in seven European countries and Australia found a workplace bullying rate of about 11%. Other studies suggest Asian countries have a higher rate.

The reasons for such bullying can be complex, and each situation is different. "Bullies often target individuals they perceive as more vulnerable or who won’t stand up to them," says Avigail Lev, PsyD, the founder and director of the Bay Area CBT Center.

This article looks at some of the causes of bullying at work and how leadership and company culture can contribute to such behavior. It also discusses how to recognize the signs of bullying at work and steps you can take to cope.

Reasons for Bullying at Work

Workplace bullying can have serious consequences, including increased distress, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, depression, and anxiety. Understanding the causes of workplace bullying is an important step toward reducing and eliminating this behavior.

Some of the reasons why bullying at work happens include:

Professional Jealousy

Bullying at work sometimes happens because of the positive attention people get for their work. Some things that can attract the attention of workplace bullies include:

  • Being intelligent, determined, creative
  • Regularly contributing new and innovative ideas
  • Going the extra mile and gaining recognition for your hard work
  • Moving through projects quickly while others are struggling
  • Being a perfectionist and striving for success

"Those who constantly strive for perfection and have a strong drive for success may be targeted by bullies. Bullies may perceive their achievements as threats or try to undermine their accomplishments out of jealousy or a desire for control," explains Lev.

Workplace bullies target those that have talent because they either feel inferior or they worry that their work is being overshadowed by the other employee's work and abilities. Bullying bosses, in particular, may target skilled workers and either steal the credit or undermine the target's work.

Lev notes that insecure overachievers, or people who rely on external validation to establish and maintain their self-worth, are sometimes the target of workplace bullying.

Social Envy

It is a myth that all victims of bullying are loners and outcasts with no friends or social connections. Often, it is the popular and well-liked workers that are most vulnerable to workplace bullying. If this describes you, bullies believe you pose a threat to their own popularity and social status at work.

Some bullies form cliques and target others who threaten their status or social standing. If you are well-liked at work, this could be the reason behind the attacks and jabs at you from the office bully.

Why Workplace Cliques Are Bad for Companies

Threats to Control

If you would describe yourself ascaring, social and collaborative, this may be the reason that you are being bullied at work. These characteristics drain a bully's power.

Team-building is the antithesis of what a bully wants. Bullies want to be in control and to call all the shots. So, you may be targeted by bullies because you are a team player.

This does not mean you should change your behavior. It simply gives you some insight into why you are being targeted. You also may be targeted for beingethical and honest. For instance, whistleblowers who expose fraudulent practices are frequently bullied by others at work to keep quiet.

Insecurity or Low Self-Esteem

If you are introverted, anxious, or submissive, you are more likely to be bullied at work than extroverted and assertive people. Insecure people with low-self esteem are often more vulnerable to bullying at work. "Their vulnerability can be exploited, and bullies may employ tactics to undermine their confidence and make them feel inferior," Lev explains.

There is also some evidence that depression and other stress-related conditions might attract the attention of bullies. Depression, anxiety, and stress-related disorders should never be left untreated. Bullying can exacerbate your symptoms.

If you are living with any of these conditions, it is essential to get treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about your symptoms.

Personality Characteristics

Lev also suggests that people with certain characteristics may be more likely to fall victim to workplace bullying. For example, people with codependent or people-pleasing traits may tolerate mistreatment, comply with unreasonable demands, or allow themselves to be demeaned to maintain harmony in the workplace.

In some cases, victims of bullying at work may have what Lev refers to as a 'subjugation schema,' which leads to a need to please others and avoid conflict. "They may comply with unreasonable demands or endure mistreatment to maintain harmony, making them targets for bullies," Lev says.

In other cases, they may havea 'failure schema or defectiveness/shame schema,' a deep-seated belief that they are flawed and unworthy.

Bullies often exploit these insecurities to further demean and belittle their victims.


Some employees may be targeted due to their gender, age, race, sexual preference, or religion. You also may be bullied if you have a disability or a medical condition.

Whatever the reason, workplace bullies single out and target people who are different from them in some way. They also tend to discriminate against others.

If you are being bullied for any of these reasons, you may have some legal recourse. Consider contacting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to see if you can file a complaint.

10 Types of Discrimination to Be Aware Of

Impact of Leadership and Company Culture

Lev also notes that personality characteristics and the general organizational culture often contribute to bullying at work. People in positions of authority may misuse their power and leadership positions to abuse the employees.

They may exploit their power to intimidate, control, or manipulate others, creating a toxic and hostile work environment. This can involve assigning unfair workloads, withholding resources, or unjustly using disciplinary measures.


Leaders with narcissistic traits, psychopathic traits, or entitlement/grandiosity schemas are more likely to engage in this bullying behavior. Lev notes that this is especially true if that person sees you as a threat.

Signs of Bullying at Work

In order to deal with bullying at work, it is important first to recognize the signs. Bullying may be subtle or overt. Workplace bullies may target their co-workers (peers, direct reports, even supervisors) with behaviors including:

  • Isolation: Freezing the target out of both work-related and social events and conversations
  • Aggression: Displaying anger toward a target (may be verbal or nonverbal)
  • Intrusion: Invading the target's personal space or desk/work area
  • Minimization: Dismissing the target's suggestions, ideas, or questions
  • Intimidation: Threatening or otherwise scaring the target
  • Criticism: Giving unwarranted or unconstructive feedback; belittling or embarrassing the target
  • Gossip: Discussing the target behind their back; spreading rumors or untruths

Bullies may also gaslight their victims by denying that these things have happened. This might cause the person to doubt themselves and their experiences.

Coping With Bullying at Work

If you are experiencing bullying at work, take steps to report it. You also should do what you can to confront the bully; research shows that seeking help and assertiveness can improve psychological well-being.

Research shows that if adults work to build assertiveness skills and social support, they might diminish the likelihood that they will be targeted by workplace bullies.

If you are being bullied at work:

  • Tell someone you trust: Talk to a friend, family member, colleague or supervisor, counselor, union rep, or human resources staffer. They can offer support and help you consider your next steps, including whether and how to confront the bully and how you can manage the stress associated with the experience.
  • Keep records: It's also important to keep records of what is happening. Write down when these events occur, who witnessed them, and what happened.
  • Assert yourself: While it depends greatly on the situation, you can often push back against bullying at work. Being assertive (telling the bully to stop what they are doing) and seeking help (such as by reporting the bullying) can help you feel better, even if they do not fully stop it.
  • Know your rights: If you are bullied at work based on your gender, age, race, sexual preference, religion, disability or medical condition, you can make a complaint through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You may also have rights as a member of a union.

It is never a good idea to let workplace bullying continue without addressing it in some way. Even if you do not report the bullying, take steps to take care of yourself.

How can you help if you see that someone else is experiencing bullying at work? You can help by being a supportive friend.

If you feel safe doing so, you could intervene on behalf of the target, for example by acknowledging their ideas during a meeting when they are being ignored or by refusing to participate in gossip about them. You could also offer to accompany the target to a meeting with human resources to discuss the bullying.

How Can I Deal With a Difficult Co-Worker?

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